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Alternative Dairy Initiative
The number of small farms has diminished rapidly over the past 50 years.
Alternative Dairy Initiative
Buying locally gives you the chance to see your farmer's methods firsthand.

Small Scale & Local

The local food movement has blossomed over the past decade as consumer focus on food safety, quality, and security has led to an increased demand for locally produced food from small farms. While it is important to note that “small-scale” and/or “local” farms are not necessarily “sustainable” ones, the benefit of direct-to-consumer sales is the heightened transparency that helps us build stronger relationships not only with our food, but with our food producers as well.

Given the steady decline in agricultural resources (Phosphorous Depletion) and national health (Obesity Epidemic), an increase in small-scale, local, and sustainable production is a much needed a step in the right direction.


What is a “small-scale” dairy?

The USDA has classified dairy farm size by number of cows, the smallest class of which contains herds of 30 animals or less. There were 21,280 farms reported to be in this class in 2006, making up 1.2% of national production (USDA, 2007) Conversely, the class with the fewest farms (only 573), with herds of 2000 cows or more, made up 23.4% of production in that same year.


Here at ADI, we tend to focus less on specific herd sizes and more on a farm’s production methods. While it seems intuitive that the smaller the herd, the easier it is to manage for animal health, milk quality, pasture health, water quality, community impacts, etc., there is no hard and fast rule as to what size is the most beneficial across the board. As with all things, it depends on the land base, infrastructure, and farmer’s ability to manage his/her herd.


“Small” v. “Local”

A study conducted in the 1940’s highlights the difference between small and local farms:


“Goldschmidt...compared two rural California communities where the structure and size of farms were different, but where total value of farm production was almost identical. In the town where farms were larger and industrialized (with a higher proportion of absentee ownership and employing a higher proportion of farm workers per unit of output) there was greater separation of social classes, i.e. greater social inequality. More decisions about local affairs were made outside the community. This contrasted with the other community where farms were smaller, more likely to be owner operated, and utilized the labor of the operating family with some hired labor. This community had a richer civic and social fabric: residents of all social classes were more involved in community affairs, more community organizations served people of both middle and working class background, and there were more local businesses and more retail activity because more agricultural and consumer purchases were made locally and more income was in the hands of the classes with a greater propensity to spend.” (Carol, J., Flore, J., Hodne, et al. (2002). Iowa concentrated animal feeding operations air quality: Social and community impacts. Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, University of Iowa.)


As the study above shows, smaller farms tend to improve their local communities. However, a “local” farm is not necessarily a small or a sustainable one. There are obvious connections to be drawn between the distance a dairy product travels and its impacts, both economic and environmental. There is no easy answer to the questions facing our food system today, and the dairy industry has its own special set of challenges given the perishability of dairy products and the high energy demands of raising cattle.


One of ADI’s primary goals is to connect consumers with producers so that individuals can decide for themselves by meeting their farmers and “tasting” their values firsthand.  

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